As we celebrate National Reconciliation week, we remember, Percy Hobson, Australia’s first indigenous gold medallist at the Commonwealth Games.
Known as the ‘Boy from Bourke’ Hobson won the men’s high jump at the Perth 1962 Commonwealth Games in a terrific competition defeating a field which included better credentialed Australians.
Bourke butcher, Percy Hobson, 17, first appeared on the 1960 national rankings leaping a modest 1.88m. His entry into national competition was no more impressive, when competing at the 1961 Australian Championships, held on Lang Park in Brisbane, he placed 12th and last, clearing just 1.75m.
Hobson, who was coached by Doug McBain by correspondence from Sydney, had to overcome long travel to Sydney for competition and occasional training sessions with McBain, while most of his training was undertaken in his own backyard.
Despite these hurdles, Hobson was making significant improvement and in November 1961, 12 months before the Games in Perth, he cleared 2.01m at a meet in Sydney in November. Unfortunately for Hobson, during the remainder of the 1961/62 season, Australian high jumping moved to record levels.
First up was Victorian Tony Sneazwell who raised the Australian record to 2.11m, breaking Chilla Porter’s mark of 2.10m. Seven-time national champion, Porter was also chasing Commonwealth Games selection, aiming to add to his silver medals at the 1956 Olympics and 1958 Commonwealth Games. Then in March in America, Victorian Colin Ridgway, who was there on a college scholarship, broke the Australian record clearing 2.146m, equal to seven-foot and half an inch, becoming the first Australian to clear the seven-foot. But at the Australian Championships in March 1962, Hobson was up-to the challenge, surprising the field winning the competition.
After the meet, Hobson was named in a five-person squad for the Perth Commonwealth Games, due to be held in November.
Back home in Bourke, Hobson embarked on training for the final Australian team trials for the Commonwealth Games to be held in Melbourne on October 20 and 21. He received financial support from the community who raised funds for him to travel to competitions, mostly in Sydney. Another important supporter was his employer, Trancred’s Meat Works who allowed him time off to train and travel for competitions and Airlines of NSW provided discounted airfares.
In October, he confirmed his place in the Commonwealth Games team by finishing second in the final team trials. In early November, he celebrated his 20th birthday just prior to departing for Perth.
In front of a crowd of 20,000 at the newly constructed Perry Lakes stadium, there were 11 starters for the men’s high jump, only requiring a straight final to decide the champion of the Commonwealth.
The event started at a rather low height of 1.82m, with the competitors landing on rubber mats, rather different than the bark shavings Hobson was familiar with at home in Bourke.
Hobson commencing at 1.88m with the long and enduring competition taking three hours for decision in the stifling 40 degree heat.
Hobson cleared the early heights well and had a ‘clean sheet’ until 2.04m, which he required three attempts to clear. At this stage, seven competitors remained in the completion. But 2.06m would be the first critical height for Hobson.
He cleared on his second attempt to take the lead, then watched all but one other miss all their heights leaving Chilla Porter and himself alive as the bar was raised to 2.08m.
Hobson maintained his lead clearing on the second attempt, a new Commonwealth Games record, while Porter was hanging in there clearing at his last attempt. The bar was raised again, to 2.11m a height Hobson and Porter, an Olympic silver medallist, had never negotiated. It looked out of the reach of both until on his very last attempt, Hobson was over, and the gold was his.
He closed the competition with three unsuccessful attempts at 2.13m (seven foot).
At just 20 years of age, the NSW country athlete, had defeated a crack field to take the Commonwealth title. He was the toast of Bourke who were proud their town’s name was beamed around the world.
Hobson became the first indigenous Australian to win gold at the Commonwealth Games, just a few days later Queensland Aboriginal boxer, Jeff ‘Mitta’ Dynevor won the bantamweight division.